Currently implemented in 30 states, the death penalty was re-legalized by Supreme Court decision in 1977. Since then, 552 people have been executed, while another 3,000 or so remain on “Death Row.” Much of the current controversy over the death penalty surrounds the circumstances where it should be applied—many argue that it has been unjustly implemented insofar as unequal application among racial and socioeconomic classes is concerned. Over 50% of death row inmates are black or another minority—an apparently hugely disproportionate number when one considers this demographic only accounts for 17% of the general population.
I would like to address, however, the merits of the very concept of the death penalty rather than argue merely over its application.
On one hand, it is widely held—both legally and in the court of public opinion—that the death penalty is both constitutional and morally right. When the accused has been convicted of reprehensibly violent crimes, and guilt is well beyond any discernable doubt, many argue that it would be ridiculous to allow the criminal any chance of killing again. While the threat of future crimes is certainly understandable, and in many cases legitimate, two major objections come to mind.
First of all, our criminal justice system is allegedly predicated upon rehabilitation. Capital punishment, quite obviously, leaves no room for rehabilitation. It is the ultimate punishment. No judgment is more final than that needle.
Furthermore, even if it were morally sound and just to decide that men—in certain circumstances—are completely beyond help and incapable of rehabilitation, given that the death penalty is the one irreversible punishment, shouldn’t our courts be proven incapable of error before given the responsibility to determine such a sentence? A system that allows the potential for innocent men to be sentenced to death is conceptually hard to justify.
In the past, we have been able to delude ourselves into thinking that our courts—while occasionally capable of error, as all human constructions are—were by and large sound and reliable systems through which a guilty man is punished and an innocent man is excused. In current years, however, given developments in DNA forensics, countless errors in verdicts of capital punishment cases have been proven. With this new awareness of the frequency of wrongful convictions in capital cases, it is hard to argue that the system should remain in place as it stands. In no just society should men be condemned to death for crimes they did not commit.
Thus, not only is the death penalty apparently applied on discriminatory and racially oriented grounds, but it denies any possibility for meaningful rehabilitation and holds the treacherous capacity for irrevocable error.